ZAYN – ROOM UNDER THE STAIRS

An excellent solo statement...

After leaving One Direction at the height of their fame to kickstart a promising solo career, Zayn Malik’s musical journey has been riddled with landmines. From racism and Islamophobia to receiving criticism for choosing his own mental health above a career in the industry, he’s experienced it all and despite dropping a few albums since 2016 (‘Mind Of Mine’, ‘Icarus Falls’, and ‘Nobody Is Listening’), the Bradford-born artist, now residing in rural Pennsylvania, still left the spotlight and ditched the celebrity lifestyle to recalibrate the priorities and pressures of being one of the world’s biggest music stars. “I was staying away from what some people might call the norm of what my job is,” he states. “Going to red carpets, doing this, doing that. I specifically kept myself away from that. I wanted to be out in the middle of nowhere, and I wanted to be able to create from a raw, honest place. I didn’t need all of the glitz and glam of going to a fancy studio,” he elaborates. In doing this, his fourth album, ‘ROOM UNDER THE STAIRS’, was born – an album that’s been six years in the making that explores themes of self-love, personal growth, accountability, and relationships, both in the platonic and romantic sense.

Recalling his alternative R&B style found on 2016’s ‘Mind Of Mine’, ’Dreamin’ and ‘Fuchsia Sea’ share heavy-hearted expressions of overthinking and coming to terms with a new lifestyle. Remaining at a jazzy pace throughout, ‘Dreamin’ showcases ZAYN’s remarkable voice reaching new peaks as he effortlessly weaves in and out of R&B-styled runs whilst the sorrowful ‘Fuchsia Sea’, though still angelic vocally, sports a rawer tone due to vulnerable lyrics such as “I’m tired of the pain,” “I saw the flames and still walked through it,” and “how can you break when you’re broken to begin with?”

Having always had the ability to be bare and honest, where this record highlights such vulnerability, ZAYN’s previous records disguised it with dynamic, glossy soundscapes; in taking this stripped-back approach, recognisable across the majority of the record, ZAYN lets his audience in more than ever before. Making use of real instruments, something which instantly highlights one main distinction from his previous works, ‘What I Am’ and ‘Alienated’ have a timeless poise and are riddled with a carefree spirit despite their personally revealing lyrics. Grappling with feelings of detachment and loneliness, ‘What I Am’ finds the Bradford-born artist accepting himself for the way he is whereas ‘Alienated’ finds him still wrestling with a sense of disconnect, existentialism, and the desire to numb any pain. With lyrics that read like pages torn from a diary, these tracks position ZAYN at the vanguard of a wave of contemporary male artists who are unafraid to embrace vulnerability. It’s this type of unflinching honesty and understated brilliance that mark an exciting change for male artists to take inspiration from; though it is something ZAYN has always explored, its meanings felt lost due to the colourful melodic backdrops yet that isn’t the case anymore.

As he leans further into life’s rawest emotions, ZAYN offers multiple moments of real introspection, without an overriding sense of self-pity, as he channels the likes of Willie Nelson and Chris Stapleton with his plainspoken, singer-songwriter approach. The catharsis and passion existing in the records spare sound brings an overwhelming measure of emotion to tracks such as ‘Concrete Kisses’ and ‘Stardust’ as ZAYN strips back the curtains on his journey with healing and self-love. The introspective tracks, set to soft-sounding synths, snare drums and acoustic guitars, lyrically detail how ZAYN found himself more whilst healing (‘Concrete Kisses’) and how he’s a little bit of a hopeless romantic (’Stardust’).

Even in the records poppier moments, the same level of vulnerability remains at the forefront of the tracks. Fizzing with what can be considered high energy for this record, ‘Birds On A Cloud’ and ‘False Starts’ revel in the sense of freedom that comes with going out (‘Birds On A Cloud’) and not being afraid of taking a risk (‘False Starts’). Reminiscent of Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ due to its beat, ‘Birds on a Cloud’ accelerates into a freewheeling, somewhat compelling jive for those reflecting on the night before whereas ‘False Starts’ slowly builds, almost as if it’s reflecting the courage it takes to work up to doing something. The tracks, both of which find ZAYN continuously diving in and out of different emotions, make it pretty evident that you don’t need to feel sorry for him as he’s openly owning every experience he’s had. “Please give me one more day of happiness,” he begs in the former track. “I need it. I need it. Please give me one more day,” he refrains.

Both sonically and emotionally charged, ‘ROOM UNDER THE STAIRS’ marks a striking evolution for ZAYN. It is a revealing meditation of his journey in life where he lays his thoughts and feelings bare and the songs are built on a relaxing energy that can calm an audience in seconds. It’s a true coming-of-age story, rooted in an organic, live environment where he draws on genres such as soul, country, and pop, and his lyrical sincerity and renewed creative freedom have taken his music in an exciting and interesting direction that no one saw coming. For an artist of such global fame to make such a significant diversion from his established approach is a courageous move but in this case, it has paid off. ‘ROOM UNDER THE STAIRS’ not only finds ZAYN demonstrating a very natural outlet for his imagination, beginning an intriguing new chapter of his career, but it also finds him exploring the hard notion of healing and self-discovery whilst remaining true to himself and that’s something his fans should be proud of.

7/10

Words: Shannon Garner

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